The Eocene mudstone, part 1: East Ridge

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time lately in the obscure part of the Oakland Hills between Piedmont Pines and Canyon. Much of it leaves me puzzled, and some of it leaves me dazzled, but I did manage to slow down and get a decent look at the rock along the East Ridge Trail in Redwood Regional Park. You’ve walked on it if that trail is your favorite hike, starting from the Skyline Staging Area.

The first mile of the trail exposes this rock in the roadbed. Stay on the trail, because actual outcrops are hard to find, and soon the poison oak will seal the woods off for the year. It presents colors of greenish-brown, buff, tan, dun and gray but the overall impression is a light brown.

The Eocene mudstone doesn’t have a formal name. It’s just a strip of fine-grained, mostly silty rock with a bit of sandstone here and there, that’s mapped across the midsection of both Thornhill and Shepherd Canyons and peters out along East Ridge (which has no formal name either; elsewhere I’ve called it Pinehurst Ridge). Here it is as shown on the geologic map labeled “Tes”, a dagger of cyan-ish color with the blade pointing east. This post is about that east-pointing blade, where there are no homes to spoil the ground. (Part 2, when I get around to it, will gather notable outcrops in the residential neighborhoods of the handle.)

What do we know about it? James Case gave it a searching look for his 1963 PhD at UC Berkeley and assigned it an age, based on fossil shells and foraminifers — one-celled “animals” with carbonate skeletons — in the early to middle Eocene, somewhere around 50 to 40 million years old, maybe a bit older. The specimens came from “thin beds of fossiliferous limestone” that Case noted on East Ridge.

I found some in the trail. It fizzed very nicely in a drop of acid, as you’d expect. The shells were small and mostly fragmentary. Naturally I left it there, under the East Bay Regional Park District’s protection.

Dorothy Radbruch of the U.S. Geological Survey looked at this rock unit again in the late 1960s and called it “sandstone and shale,” primarily fine-grained sandstone. She noted that it was fairly strong, holding up 1:1 slopes, which is reassuring for homeowners in that part of the canyons.

Most of what I saw in the roadway was siltstone — usually massive, or featureless, but occasionally laminated like this.

The USGS’s Russ Graymer, in the 1990s, characterized it more simply as green and maroon mudstone with occasional sandstone. He stated confidently that it was faulted on the top and bottom — just another small card in the well-shuffled deck of Coast Range rocks in the greater San Andreas fault zone.

In brief, it’s an isolated body of pretty clean mixed fine sediment that must have formed off the seacoast, not too near. It got lost in the shuffle as California was sliced, diced and rearranged between the middle Eocene and now.

Here’s a detail of the geologic map, plus the equivalent area in Google Earth, in case you feel like poking around. But note that just north of the East Ridge Trail, it’s East Bay MUD watershed land.

Top to bottom: Tor, Orinda Formation; Tcc, Claremont chert; Tsm, Sobrante Formation; Tes; Kr, Redwood Canyon Formation. The line with the teeth is a thrust fault, south side up.

The woods are rapidly closing in from their winter openness, and the slopes are in that brief interval between slippery-wet and crumbly-dry. I’m itching to return while I can, and it’s not from the poison oak, yet. Already I’ve missed the manzanita blooming season, except for a rare straggler . . .

and the land beckons.

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